What is the importance of visual arts

This section provides an in-depth review of the literature based on the research topic carried out by the researcher. A description on related learning theories introduced by famous educationists is also included to explain the role of visual arts in the learning curriculum of schools today. The various positive developments in children are further illustrated in relation to the teaching and learning of both subjects; visual arts and science.

The curriculum

When it comes to teaching and learning, curriculum is always linked as the connection of subjects, where it allows educators to incorporate their teaching and learning methodologies to what is supposed to be taught to the respective age groups of children. Addison and Burgess highlight that ‘learning does not take place in a vacuum. The ethos of the school, its rules, regulations, shared values, the individual beliefs and interests of teachers all form part of the pupils’ curriculum’ (2007:69). The curriculum illustrates the aims and learning objectives of the content that all children should learn throughout the academic year. Educators abide by the curriculum as it is designed based on the various policies and framework introduced by authorities. Many studies have been carried out on the teaching and integration of art education in schools for the betterment of all children. Al-Amri (2011), a member of the International Advisory Committee for Arts Education, UNESCO, mentions that the trends of art education have constantly been changing directions due to several factors. These factors may include the national or school policies, results of studies carried out by experienced educationists, school environment and so on. He believes that art education needs to be much more comprehensive today as it particularly promotes young learners’ development in creativity. This is supported by Trilling and Fadel (2009) who claim that creativity and innovation are the two key skills that ought to be developed among young leaners in the 21st century. Previously, the significance of arts education was emphasized in the Asia and Pacific Regional Conference, stating that we achieve a peace and sustainable development by accomplishing quality arts education (UNESCO, 2006). Arts education has shown integral outcomes as it allows equal opportunities for cultural and artistic activities. Hence, UNESCO aims to ensure arts education gets privilege and obtains a central place in all educational programs and activities worldwide as it ‘... is a key to training generations capable of reinventing the world that they have inherited’ (Bokova, 2012).

The arts and science integration

Friedman says that, ‘the secret sauce comes from our ability to integrate art, music, and literature with the hard sciences’ (2008:2). This integration currently plays a major role in education. Researches show that these conversions in education greatly affect students’ academic results as they get to develop their visual-spatial abilities, reflection, and experimentation skills as well. It is seen that when schools give more importance to mathematics and science, students are limited to developing only certain skills. Leaders such as Obama agree with the integration of arts education as he states that, ‘in addition to giving our children the science and math skills they need to compete in the new global context, we should also encourage the ability to think creatively that comes from a meaningful arts education’ (2013, cited in National Art Education Association, 2013:3). Nunan described the term creativity as ‘the act of turning new and imaginative ideas into reality’ (2009:12). Naiman (2013), founder of Creativity at Work, adds on that thinking and producing are the two key processes involved in creativity. Greene (2007) explains that arts inspire and allow imagination producing a different “reality” for children. “Imagination is more important than knowledge because knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” (Einstein cited in Nunan, 2009:11). Through their own creativity, children learn to bring out innovative ideas developing various cognitive skills and understanding the world in a whole different way.

In order to fulfil the requirements of the curriculum, it is important for art teachers to be professional who understand how to deliver the various skills to children. Many researches like Pearson (2001), Bracey (2003) and Hedges & Cullen (2005) agree that teachers need to understand the theoretical tools and have a sufficient background of art education to ensure children attain the knowledge of art (cited in UNESCO, 2006). The Road Map for Arts Education conference by UNESCO summarized,

  • Learning in and through the arts (Arts Education and Arts-in-Education) can enhance at least four of these factors: active learning; a locally-relevant curriculum that captures the interest and enthusiasm of learners; respect for, and engagement with, local communities and cultures; and trained and motivated teachers. (2006:6)

Arts integration promotes the child-centred pedagogical approach towards teaching and learning as it calls for hands-on tasks linked to other subjects ensuring the learning of maximum skills. The Primary Years Programme (PYP) of the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO) consists of one ‘Transdisciplinary’ and one ‘Stand-Alone’ unit. This means that the first one encourages the integration of all subjects while teaching a particular subject whereas the latter means that the respective subjects need to be taught on their own without incorporating other subjects. During the ‘stand-alone’ unit, teachers focus on teaching only important art skills or genres whereas teaching and learning is combined with the unit of inquiry in the transdisciplinary unit (International Baccalaureate Organisation, 2010). This integration with the central idea also allows teachers to provide a profound understanding of art and the world though art (Immanuel Primary School, 2009).

Visual arts and science are linked fundamentally as they both promote discovery learning (Alberts, 2010). The integration allows students to attempt artistic science projects that enhance their imagination, higher-order thinking skills, creativity and knowledge on both art and science. These projects provide outstanding opportunities for students to discover and explore the world on their own. It also encourages them ‘to pursue their scientific inquiries in which arts is embedded, and work on both art and science disciplines simultaneously’ (Inan, 2009:1379). For example, the Reggio Emilia-inspired preschool shows that the science projects are not only visually done well but also full of science facts, children’s reflections and in-depth thinking (Inan, 2009). Inan reviews that ‘their creativity skills and discoveries are guided with their inquiries and questions, which become the seeds of long term projects’ (2009:1378).

Social development

Visual arts allow children to develop their social skills as they share and explain their beautiful artwork with their classmates and teachers (National Art Education Association, 1994). The different elements of visual arts enable children to develop confidence, communication skills, an understanding of how they learn and most importantly the art of expressing themselves. Self-expression promotes the freedom for all children as they are given the opportunity to imagine and express their emotions (Efland, 2004, cited in Tsimboukidou, 2010). As they become more expressive, their language skills improve as they use different words to share their feelings and art creations. Additionally, visual art lessons allow learners to engage with people by communicating through images (Kear & Callaway, 2000). They develop metalanguage as they discuss their different art and design experiences and write them down as reflections (Bloomfield, 2000).

Social development through visual arts education also means that children get familiarised with the diverse cultures and artwork from different time periods. They understand the uniqueness of diverse people and stimulate their minds to look at the world differently (Bullard, 2013). The Road Map of Arts Education (2006) conference listed two effects caused by arts integration. Firstly, the demand for professional art teachers having knowledge of diversity rises. Secondly, the various historical and cultural art programmes and activities are easily organised and carried out in educational premises and organisations. As past researches suggest, one factor affecting positive arts integration would be one’s environment (Nunan, 2009). Children’s creativity gets stimulated though an inviting and resourceful surrounding where they enjoy exploring their art skills by integrating them into different subjects like science.

Cognitive development

Among all the different skills, educationists emphasize extensively on children’s cognitive development that is affected by not only the curriculum used but also how the different subjects are taught in classrooms. The integration of visual arts into the teaching and learning of science show positive improvements in children’s thinking skills, reasoning abilities and organization levels (Riley, 2012). These improvements could be made with teachers’ continuous effort of practising a teaching method that increases active student engagement during lessons. Edwards and Springate (1995) confirm that children learn better when the facilitators revisit and revise their lessons often. This becomes easier when the child-centred pedagogical approach is practised as it allows active learning to take place through sharing and gaining knowledge from one another. According to Vygotsky (1978), expertise in art education is essential for individuals to work actively and develop ‘higher psychological functions’ or in other words, the processes stated in Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy; analysis, synthesis and evaluation (cited in White, 2012). Children develop these skills when science activities are carried out using the integration approach in which teachers encourage them to use the elements of visual arts to understand the science topics better. The Primary School Curriculum developed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment explain that the visual arts curriculum ‘presents a range of activities in perceiving, exploring, responding to and appreciating the visual world’ (1999:8).

The World Conference on Arts Education summarized that the teaching and learning of arts ‘… is recognized as a means of achieving one of UNESCO’s central educational goals: quality education’ (UNESCO, 2006:6). The arts education framework includes the Arts in Education (AiE) approach which ‘… uses the arts as a tool for equipping students with knowledge and skills across the curriculum to stimulate cognitive development and to encourage innovative and creative thinking’ (UNESCO, 2006:5). The Roadmap for Art Education by UNESCO in 2006 highlights the importance of visual arts integration in the other subjects’ curriculum as its learning relates to the modern world’s requirements. The integrated curriculum will then naturally prepare children for the future they will be living in.

Emotional and physical development

Studies have proved that arts education connects children to their cultural background cultivating ‘... a sense of creativity and initiative, a fertile imagination, emotional intelligence and a moral “compass”, a capacity for critical reflection, a sense of autonomy, and freedom of thought and action’ (UNESCO, 2006:4). Emotional development plays an important role in the decision-making abilities and affects how children give ideas and carry out their actions. Many like Damasio believe that arts education sustains a peaceful culture as it provides a balance between cognitive and emotional development (2013, cited in Bullard, 2013). Art is a form of language, a communication technique whereby children having difficulty in speaking are allowed to express their deepest emotions openly (Nunan, 2009). Together with enhancing the children’s conversation and discussion abilities, it also affects their emotional development as they are able to understand their perceptions and feelings as well (Dickinson, 2005).

Besides emotional development, arts education also enhances physical development as movement is part and parcel of art activities. According to Burrill, ‘movement is the foundation for learning and development’ (2010:1). Among the activities employed to enhance movement during lessons, teachers may include art making in which movement is fundamental (Burrill, 2010). Alberts (2010) lists various ways in which visual arts could be integrated especially during the teaching and learning of science. Teachers organise various hands-on tasks in which learners are given opportunities to explore, discover and create themselves, promoting their cognitive skills (Burrill, 2010). Research shows that ‘art and science are two subjects that complement each other [as] art projects turn science concepts that may or may not work in an experiment into something hands-on and visual’ (Collins, 2013).

Children tend to correlate the difficult science facts and concepts with visual representations that aid in easier understanding and long-term memory (Dickinson, 2005). Facilitators encourage the visual arts and science integration in several ways such as creating mobiles, sculptures, 3D models, crafts, drawings and paintings in order to boost the understanding of the concepts learnt in science (Alberts, 2010). UNESCO adds on that ‘arts education contributes to an education which integrates physical, intellectual, and creative faculties and makes possible more dynamic and fruitful relations among education, culture, and the arts’ (2006:5).

It has been argued that students learn better when they are given different opportunities to express their knowledge (Sawyer, n.d.). Many students might feel comfortable with drawing out particular science topics discussed in class. Others might want to paint or even make models based on the science topics. This makes learning the hard sciences fun and interactive during lessons. Children are motivated to enjoy and inquire more about science as they get a chance to interact with their classmates during the activities too. Bloomfield too mentions that ‘the creative arts permit individual children to conceptualise and understand their strength areas to compensate or overcome weakness in other areas’ (2000:108). Among the various impacts of visual arts, motivating and upholding their interest is significant to ensure quality education is taking place. Teaching strategies are vital in bringing big changes in children as they ensure children’s self-esteem is always improved (Dickinson, 2005).

‘Over the past 10 years prominent theorists and practitioners such as Catterall (1998), Eisner (1998) and Gardner (1999) have begun to argue that the arts are integral to the education of the "whole child"’ (cited in Gullat, 2008:1). Art and design stimulates creativity and imagination. It provides ‘visual tactile and sensory experiences and a unique way of understanding the world’ (DfEE, 1999, cited in Addison & Burgess, 2007:306). Hence the integration of visual arts and science is a necessary change in today’s curriculum.